Congressional hopeful Morgan Harper on reshaping the city that shaped her

Hanif Abdurraqib
Morgan Harper

The brick walls of Morgan Harper’s Columbus apartment are decorated with maps and to-do lists. A massive calendar displays a sprawl of months, culminating in a circle around March 17, 2020. She’s seated at a kitchen table that has been converted into a surface for strategy: papers, more calendars, a few schedules. To an outsider who doesn’t know Harper, it all might feel overwhelming. But the outsiders who don’t know Harper have begun shrinking ever since her 36th birthday on July 1, when she announced her intention to run for Congress as a challenger to ever-present U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty.

Beatty’s hold on Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District hasn’t seen a Democratic primary challenger since 2012, but the city is a different place than it was seven years ago. As Columbus shifts (read: gentrifies), there are newer victims of its shifting. The concerns of the city aren’t what they once were, in terms of economics, racial justice, social equity, and beyond. Harper is proposing a more progressive platform, one rooted entirely in her passion for the city she’s from.

Harper was born in the Ohio State University hospital and then given up for adoption. She lived in a foster home for nine months before being adopted and growing up on the East Side in the ’90s. She found refuge in the Livingston branch of the library, and eventually earned a scholarship to Columbus Academy. The navigating of different worlds raised a sharp awareness about social inequalities within the city.

“With my mom being a Columbus public school teacher, you are always traveling. She was an art teacher, and you're always going and getting transferred to different schools when you're an art teacher, especially,” she said. “She was at West High, and then East High before I got the scholarship to go to Academy. I saw so much of the city and I got a glimpse at some of the inequities in the city early on. That had a lasting impression on me.”

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Harper’s educational pursuits pulled her away from Columbus after high school. She went to undergrad at Tufts University in Boston, law school at Stanford University and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Later, she worked for three-and-a-half years at the Consumer Protection Bureau, rising to the position of senior adviser to then-Director Richard Cordray, the 2018 Democratic nominee for Ohio governor. All of it, though, was with a mission to come back to Columbus and attempt to reshape the city she’d loved and been loved by. “It just really bothered me at a young age that life could be so random,” she said. “And we need to make a region, we need to make a city, we need to make a country where everybody has a fair shot. That’s been one of the driving principles of my life.”

Since announcing her campaign, Harper has hardly been able to find a moment to rest. The early moments in any campaign are crucial, particularly a campaign like this one, where Harper is taking on an incumbent who is so deeply entrenched and long-tenured. Ohio’s 3rd District has become overwhelmingly blue since 2012, voting at 29 percent for both republican candidates in the 2012 and the 2016 election. The entirety of the district is in Franklin County, encompassing parts of the South Side to parts of Worthington, and spreading from the heart of Downtown to Whitehall. It is a diverse district with diverse needs.

“There are only so many districts that are represented in a way that allow you to actually talk about progressive policies, which is what I care about,” she said. “And it happens to coincide with the fact that this is where I’m from. This is my context for thinking about these issues, and this is where I want to live and work on them." 

So far, Harper has flung herself to every corner of the district, simply meeting people and hearing their concerns. She bikes nearly everywhere (including her temporary headquarters on Gay Street, for when she needs a break from her apartment). But when she isn’t biking, she’s using ride-share services, talking to the drivers (who are also residents of the city) about what they need and what they’re lacking. She’s been at festivals and gone to neighborhood meetings. On the day of our meeting, she’s preparing to attend the Lights for Liberty vigil at the Statehouse. All of these things raise her personal profile, of course. But for Harper, the work is about being an effective listener, getting a clear read on people’s needs, and seeing what can be done to bridge the gap between needs and resources. For Harper, it’s not entirely about having every answer as much as it is about hearing every question.

“I want to make sure we’re also getting the perspectives of everybody in the third district, and you can't shortcut that. So we’re putting the work in, meeting people, being present and hearing from them. And that's where I'm coming from with this. I want to do whatever will help people the most. To do that, you have to be hearing from people directly,” she said, pausing for a moment before recounting a story from a recent community encounter. “We were at this meeting in Linden and hearing from an older man who was living there. He was saying that he was only earning $400 a month but cannot find housing that is less than $800 a month. So, what are we going to do for that?”

Harper is a millennial, but she’s on the cusp, which she thinks gives her a unique advantage in finding solutions. “We've lived in a world before the Internet and we understand people who are a little overwhelmed by the pace of change,” she said. “We work with our parents to figure out their phones and all of these things. But I also am a person of the younger generation, as well, and able to navigate those worlds. It's also a theme for me that's just been navigating multiple worlds my whole life, really. And I'm drawing on all those experiences to represent what is a very diverse place in Columbus.”

Harper’s campaign is multi-layered. She’s going to focus on financial stability, housing, climate change and systemic reparations. She lays out clear plans for each of the first three, before going into her plan for systemic reparations, which is perhaps the most progressive aim of her campaign. She’s clear with her language on reparations. These will, in fact, be systemic, and not simply cash payments, as has been the main way it has been framed in the discourse of the past few years.

“Black people in this country have been subject to discrimination for almost the entire time that we've been here,” Harper said. “And a lot of that discrimination can be traced to policies at the federal level. I think the most recent discussions around that have been connected to housing policy, books like The Color of Law [by] Richard Rothstein. And I really challenge anyone after reading that book and knowing the facts that the average wealth of a black family in the US is $9,000 dollars. For a white family, it’s $132,000. So knowing how much housing and home ownership is a key part of building wealth in this country, I challenge anyone after knowing that to not feel like we've got to do something.”

The something, in this case, revolves around transforming the lives of black people for generations. Harper is considering ways to level the playing field — “especially in the entrepreneurial arena, where you don't necessarily have parents that can give you money to start a business,” she said. “Receiving $20,000 at birth that can grow over the course of a childhood could put someone in a position to have the capital to use for whatever they want, from starting a company to going to school … regardless of who their parents are.”

Harper insists that she’s going to remain unabashedly progressive, but also work to help people understand that these progressive stances are speaking to issues that, at the end of the day, will impact everyone. Climate change, she said, has to be fixed for everyone, not just the people who believe in progressive issues.

Harper is entering the political arena as a young woman of color in a time when young women of color are working to reshape Congress and, in doing so, finding themselves the target of a racist president. Harper dodges any comparisons to Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), the four congresswomen dubbed “The Squad,” and points out that no one asks white men if they feel a connection to every other white male politician. But their work is also the work that she sees herself aligned with.

“I do think it's important for people to understand just how much people here are aligning with some of those issues that people are talking about in New York, in California,” she said. “Here in Columbus, Ohio, people believe that workers should be paid fairly. And we do think that the climate is in crisis, and we need to be very bold about how we're thinking about fixing that. But I think maybe some people would be surprised to learn that if you haven't spent time here with the electorate. But the electorate is there, and so we need to be representing that on the national stage and be part of the coalition building that's going to be necessary to pass this legislation.”

A city can give and a city can take. For Morgan Harper, Columbus has given her a great deal, and so she finds herself with no choice but to do the work of helping the city rise to its fullest possible potential. And it is hard work. Even as Joyce Beatty stumbles through awkward tweets or the occasional misstep, she is beloved in the community. She’s a familiar face. To challenge her presents a tall task that Harper is up for, propelled by her genuine gratitude for the city as it has been, and her dreams for what the city can become.

It is easy, of course, for politicians to speak on a love of place, or wherever they’ve been rooted. Everyone has some story of home, or how home has shaped them. But for Harper, there is an understanding of something greater: that place is worth celebrating, but is also entirely a matter of circumstance. And so every place people call home has to be furnished with the things those specific people need to survive.

“It sounds cheesy, but that's just really important to me, that everyone get the chance to live their dreams,” Harper said. “The idea that you don't get a chance to live out your dreams based on the circumstances of how you're born is not acceptable to me. I think what I love about Columbus, and why I do want to put all this work in, is coming from a place of not only love but also immense gratitude to a place that took care of me and my family when we were going through real challenges. The fabric of this community is very strong. I know the people here. There are a lot of people who stay here. … Even if they move away for a moment, nowhere else is quite home.”

At the intersection of love and ambition, Harper sits — joyful, eager and managing a hectic run of living. She has to remember to eat from time to time, and has to remember to see her family, her friends. She’s trying to stay grounded through it all, which, I suppose, is all one can ask of a person trying to change the course of their flawed, beautiful, beloved city. There is little room for moral victory, Harper tells me. She is glad to be organizing people, but she wants to win, of course. She was once packed into this city’s libraries, once calling this city’s radio stations to request Janet Jackson songs. To her, the city once felt limitless, and it surely can again.